The Starting Five Stephen A. Smith Interview: There Are No Excuses

“Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight! Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight!“–Thomas Todd

Crazy to think Fight the Power was twenty years ago, but what has really changed in the wake of Public Enemy doing whatever it took to shine the light on racial injustice of any kind?

How does this apply to journalism you say?

Yes, Barack Obama is President but so what? Where is equality? Are we ever able to visualize a world where journalism is truly objective? Why is middle America cool with a product which merely seems to superficially represent their history despite being so offensive to others?

Should we stop fighting because Pennsylvania Avenue is occupied by a family who looks like me…us…do…you…trust?

Friday night, Sixers vs. Hawks, erstwhile journalists David Aldridge and Stephen A. Smith walked out to the Philadelphia 76’ers press row. Anthony Gilbert and I usually hold down the fort and sometimes looked upon as if we should be pushing brooms and changing toilet paper despite the way we are dressed…while others tattered and torn, sneakers straight busted and worn or wearing shoes devoid the use of a shoehorn are featured and fully supported. Yet and still, we are encouraged. We laugh at the notion some might consider us inferior and do what we can to represent everyone who knows and enjoys our work…dead or alive.

Of course there are some of another color who I respect fully here. Phil Jasner gets it because of his savvy and accurate reporting. Dei Lynam is another because of years of experience inside the game. There is also James Beale. He’s the new flex and I dig his work because of his intelligence and forthright approach. I have mad respect for how they formulate their questions and map their stories. Ashley Fox is one as well. Precise, heartfelt, truth. These are only a few. This is not just about race because there are brothas who are just as bad as the most racist writer out there. Understand the distinction.

I try as I might to show you what it’s like. It’s not all bad. In fact, I love what I do and I cannot sell out and I will not. I know I could money grab which would collectively stab the youngsters of journalism future lore in the hearts and complete my misery, but I won’t.

I just can’t.

There’s so many cats out there who don’t know what the heck there are doing. There are so many cats who do the work of Shaitan yet have no idea the damage they are kissing the world with because it’s all about them or their 24 hour pop culture driven editors. They journal of others so insolent and disparaging but are the same themselves. Why must this be?

It’s so bad now that unless you have a serious memory, you’ll forget recent events as if they happened in another far off space and time.

Let me ask you a question: If journalism continues on through the bad news is good news mantra, how is that a good thing?

That’s the dumbest most absurd cop out piece of trash I’ve ever heard but it’s a get that money statement isn’t it?

Does this hold us back? NO.

There is nothing that will break your dream more but the thoughts of blaming everyone else for your failure. You must do for you. You must understand there is no excuse. There is no excuse for not achieving what you know is your destiny. There is no excuse to not climb over hundreds or even thousands stuffed chaotic in your path who scream and scratch and curse with the intentions of breaking you down…down…down.

One of those who has cleared a path and has not been broken down is Stephen A. Smith. He remains a versatile force in journalism and is one of the most passionate personalities in the field.

He’s breaking stories most would go crazy for.

No one agrees with everyone and it shouldn’t be that way. There must be discussion no matter however heated.

I’ve sought this interview with SAS for years. We sat down in the press room after Philly’s loss to Atlanta last Friday night just to kick something out on the fly.

This relatively short convo is for the field as much as it is for the fans. Please judge yourselves accordingly.

Michael Tillery: What’s it like to be back in Philly?

Stephen A. Smith: As far as I’m concerned, I’m not officially back on yet…if you are talking about the Philadelphia Inquirer. I should be writing…God willing…in a few weeks or so. It’s good to be back on the scene. I stepped away from sports after 16 years to do more politics. I never wanted to step away from sports, but I wanted to show I could diversify my portfolio.

As we all know in this economic recession and in the industry itself, these are scary scary times. If you are one dimensional, then you can find yourself without a career or without a career in a blink of an eye. That combined with my passion for things other than sports just propelled me to venture into new territory. Even though I did that, I never intended to leave sports fully. To be back on the scene and around colleagues I grew up respecting and having a lot of admiration for in the game, it gives you a different level of appreciation after what I’ve been through the last couple of years.

MT: The fans adore you. When you Anthony and I were talking, I became the guy with the camera taking pics of you and the fans like some makeshift photog. Is that a testament to the versatility you allude to outside of your skill set? What would you tell the young writer getting ready to smash down on the game?

SAS: Be more than one dimensional. Understand you will have to pound the pavement and work your butt off. I appreciate the love and affection people show me. I also know that I’ve earned it. I learned it by working very very hard and also by never taking whatever skills people thought I had for granted. When I look at a guy like David Aldridge…or Michael Wilbon, Bill Rhoden or the late Ralph Wiley, I know what they went through to be where they are and will never take anything for granted.

There are times when people may look at you and think you are doing it. They think you are feeling yourself or what have you. What you’re doing is realizing there are going to be naysayers. There are going to be people who are trying to knock you down at every turn because they want what you have or they wish they were in the position you’re in. You have to be strong willed enough to fend off and shrug off all of that shrapnel and criticism and keep it moving forward. You can’t get caught up in people trying to keep you down. In this industry especially, you can’t get caught up in being liked.

I’m one of those people I don’t give a damn whether I’m liked or not. It’s about respect, but it’s not about being liked. You have to have alligator skin. You gotta understand that if you are truly trying to be somebody that’s driven by information and substance…that’s your calling card…your signature throughout your career…lots of times you are not going to be liked and that has to be OK with you. If you are not, you are in the wrong business. It has to be about your work garnering respect.

MT: Seems like with the rise of the Internet, writers are becoming the of the moment 24 hour cycle. How do we as journalists make sure every generation feels our words and perspectives to be something other than just the here and now?

SAS: It’s about looking ahead and not being caught up in the moment. You gotta be a step ahead of the game. We’re in the digital age. Newspapers are considered to be a dying breed…a dying industry…but you know what? Your online newspapers are not. Look at the Wall Street Journal. They are finding ways to make money and are not about losing money. You look at Politico and the Drudge Report…there’s success that can come with the digital format. What people are saying is, when you talk about the newspaper industry…you listen to radio…you watch the television…everybody picks up a newspaper. It’s the fabric of the news industry. There’s a place for it, but the actual hard copy is what you’re debating here. If you go online, you can have a successful career. if you pay attention to that. The digital age, the video age, television, etc., you just have to understand where the action is. You can’t get caught up in the way things used to be but the way things are going to be. You have to have the foresight to see where you fit in. Analyze your skill set, what you are, what you bring to the table and see how that correlates to the opportunity before you.

If you aren’t paying attention to that, you can’t blame anybody for not paying attention to you.

MT: What did you learn about yourself as you were making the foray into covering politics and entertainment that you didn’t know covering sports?

SAS: I’ve always been humble despite what people may believe. Unfortunately, what I learned the most is a meritocracy is not as finite as I thought it would be. I thought that you can be recognized as one of the best and somehow…some way there was a safe haven for you.

You have to strive. You have to be all you can be.

If you are a Black man you have to be twice as good to get half as much…as they say. I thought that once you were there and once you established yourself you couldn’t be denied and I found out otherwise. I found out that it’s just as much about being liked and understood and appreciated as it is about being recognized and respected.

That’s a hard hard lesson to learn because when you work your whole life…your whole career…with a goal in mind of just being recognized as one of…if not the very best of what you do, you are looking for light at the end of the tunnel. You are looking for an end road. You are looking for that finish line that finally says “This is it! I’ve done it! Boom!’ and it’s never that way in our careers. It never ends until our careers end. It’s unfortunate that is the way it is…it’s just reality. It elevates the importance of being in shape mentally and physically and understand you are constantly going to be in battles. You have to have the intestinal fortitude to fight all of that stuff off because if you don’t? You’ll get eaten alive.

MT: There’s this notion that Black writers (like Black coaches are seen as motivators) are just known as having relationships with players and that’s where our sports logic originates. What about other facets of the organization? Don’t we have those relationships as well as objectivity in our work? Speaking generally of course in this instance.

SAS: Well first of all my relationships have never been limited to players. I’ve always had relationships with coaches. I’ve always had relationships with executives.

During the off season when I’m breaking stories, those aren’t players who are giving me that information, those are executives and agents and coaches.

That’s always been a misnomer that I’ve never paid any attention to.

Secondly and more importantly, what I would say to Black writers out there is never apologize for the relationships you have with players. They are a significant part of this game. You don’t owe anybody any apology for that. Not to mention the fact…if we are being real about it…if we’re taking it from a racial perspective…White writers who have had relationships with coaches and executives who happen to be White. They’ve never had to apologize for the advantage their ethnicity gave them, so why should we have to apologize for the advantage our ethnicity gives us?

It’s not like we fabricated it. I didn’t wake up and fabricate that I’m Black. I didn’t fabricate that I’m from the streets of New York City…that my culture, my upbringing, my environment correlates to some degree with a lot of the players that play professional sports. These are not things that I’ve fabricated or made up. These are a fact of life.

The music that I listen to. The circles that I roam in. The company that I keep. If it’s similar or was similar at a time in my life what these players go through and what they experience…because of that we have a camaraderie and a rapport with one another…we have a level of understand with one another that they may not have with a White writer, I don’t owe any apology for that.

When a White writer gets along with a coach because they are both Jewish or both Catholic…OK…when they get along with an owner or an executive for the same reasons, I’ve never ever seen one of them apologize for that kind of relationship that they were able to foster because of their ethnicity and their upbringing and the environment they grew up in.

I damn sure am not going to apologize for that. It is what it is and it was my job to utilize that to my advantage and if I did and I did it successfully, so be it.

MT: I was interviewing my man Branson Wright and he mentioned a nickname you had playing at WInston-Salem State for Big House Gaines. What was that?

SAS: They called me the Pedestian because I could shoot it from anywhere on the floor. I was of the thought that if I could shoot it, then why go inside and bang? I was 145 pounds. There was no need for that.

MT: What are your thoughts on playing for a legend? He won over 800 games (828-446). What did you learn from him?

SAS: He was a great man. There were many times where I would just go in and sit down with him and talk about life and he gave it to me straight. I learned a lot from him and wouldn’t be the man I am today without me seeing first hand what type of man he was.

I owe a lot to him.

MT: You do some speaking to kids. How do you reach them?

SAS: Anytime you speak to kids, you have to understand you are gonna reach some minds but you are not going to reach everybody. Kids are kids man. That microwave mentality. That ADD. Some kids are more focused than others. Some kids are more easily to reach than others. What you have to do is pound the pavement. You have to adopt the same mentality that you have towards your career and your own individual aspirations and aim that at them when you are talking to them. Recognize that you have to keep going after them by continuing to speak and pounding the same message. Along the way, they are going to experience things in life that even though you think they aren’t paying attention to what you said, they’ll recall something and use it as fuel that will guide them to the next level and through the moments of adversity.

That’s what you have to pay attention to. You can never lose hope in kids.

MT: What was the turning point in your life that made you say I’m gonna get to this next level regardless of what anybody has ever done or said?

SAS: When I was a kid. In terms of my ambition and determination to be successful is when I was kept back in fourth grade.

That embarrassed me. People laughed. It was humiliating. All the boys in the neighborhood made me the laughing stock. It was the ultimate humiliation.

As I got older, what really made me focus on my career was when I interned in Greensboro, North Carolina.

I was doing calendar items and school lunch menus and birth listings and all this other stuff.

In order to get into sports writing, I literally had to work from 8:30-6:00 doing that stuff and do sports writing in my off time for free! 6:30 at night to midnight in North Carolina. Going through all of that stuff and not getting paid and recognizing that cats I thought I was just as good as right then were getting paid but they were telling me I wasn’t ready?

I was offended by that. I was determined to make it happen.

It really zeroed me in. It heightened my focus and determination and let me know I wasn’t able to stopped!

I knew I wasn’t going to let them define what was going on in my life. If thatt was the case, I’m finished. I was making 15,000 a year living off tuna fish and kool-aid. You are trying to tell me this is my life?

If I’m listening to what you tell me, this is my life! That wasn’t going to happen. From that point on, I devised a plan. I had my mentors in place. I already built my resume with published clips. I had all that going for me.

It was really about pushing and prodding for that one opportunity.

I knew once I had that opportunity I was gonna make it happen.

12 Responses to “The Starting Five Stephen A. Smith Interview: There Are No Excuses”

  1. Temple3 says:

    You are having some day!!! 🙂

  2. michelle says:

    Nice interview Miz. Stephen A. in an interesting dude

  3. Donna S. says:

    Great work Mike….keep it coming….

  4. Dre says:


    Thanks for blessing me with that. Always had respect for SAS and glad the game couldn’t break the bruh. Keep making things happen!

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mizzzzo: @stephenasmith TSF interview posted. Good read. Dig it and comment.

  6. TC says:

    Thanks Mizzo. I love Stephen A’s drive. Love the fact that he doesn’t apologize for his connections to athletes coz as he says, you know white reporters wouldn’t do similar for their ties to organizations. Good stuff.

  7. good stuff…i still wonder how he feels about the notion that it was an article that he wrote about big house gaines that eventually ended his tenure at Winston Salem…

  8. […] did a very insightful interview with one of my favorite journalist Steven A. Smith, great read { The Starting Five […]

  9. […] The Starting Five scored a sweet interview with Stephen A. Smith of ESPN fame for a nice piece about the state of race in America and how important it is for a […]

  10. Bruno says:

    Good interview.

    Pardon my tardiness, but I just noticed that Stephen A is no longer working ESPN games, etc. Can anyone shed any light on why he left?

  11. […] Gaines very knowledgeable son who was a former Bulls scout during the great years) everywhere. Stephen A. aside, the Bulls love after Game 1 was incredible as if LeBron just won a Boston championship. After the […]

  12. Larry says:

    I have to give it to this good man. His life struggles kind of reflected of what I went through in school when I was young. Stephen A. ,you are one true brother that stood against tide against ignorance and single- mindedness. Keep encouraging young people to start pounding the pavement!!!